The SAISD Ethics Committee meets on May 30, 2018.
The SAISD Ethics Committee meets on May 30, 2018. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

The San Antonio Independent School District’s ethics committee debuted a 28-page document Thursday night outlining specific tenets of a proposed ethics code.

The policy outlines rules involving gifts to district employees and trustees, conflicts of interest, and accountability.

SAISD formed an ethics committee after former trustee Olga Hernandez was indicted on federal bribery charges in 2017 related to her acceptance of gifts from an insurance broker seeking business from the school district. Hernandez was acquitted, but the district sought to put standards in place to ensure that school board members and employees did not appear to compromise themselves.

“The law provides a floor, a baseline of expectations,” said trustee Steve Lecholop, the committee’s chairman. “We should set our floor much higher where there is no appearance of impropriety.”

In one of the policy’s lengthiest sections, gifts are defined as items that could reasonably be construed as influencing or rewarding specific official action of a board member or SAISD employee. The policy prohibits trustees or employees from accepting, soliciting, or agreeing to accept in the future any gifts from an individual looking to do business with SAISD, a registered lobbyist, or public relations firm.

This includes meals and entertainment, with a few exceptions.

Trustees and staff can still accept “nominal gifts” valued at under $25. Trustee Steve Lecholop used the example of a teacher’s union giving trustees a book as a present to signify a literacy event as an acceptable gift.

Board members can also continue to have meals paid for as long as the meal does not exceed $28 in one sitting, or $150 over the span of a year. Trustees also sought to address what was previously a lax policy about entertainment that permitted any amount to be spent as long as the person spending the money accompanied the SAISD individual.

“You could go to a box at the Spurs NBA Finals game and as long as your ticket is being paid for by someone in the suite … there were no disclosure requirements,” Lecholop said.

The policy tightens this, limiting the value of entertainment spent on an SAISD official to $25. Entertainment includes activities such as golf, concerts, sports games, or hunting trips.

Conflicts of interest also are addressed in the policy. The code stipulates that board members or employees cannot act in any official SAISD capacity when they have a personal or business relationship with a potential vendor. For trustees, this includes voting on potential contracts.

Trustees expressed some confusion over who can police violations of the proposed standards. State law doesn’t allow trustees to vote out a fellow board member for code violations. As a result, Lecholop wrote the policy so the board president can investigate potential violations and then if a violation is found, the board would publicly censure the trustee who broke the code.

“The only thing you can do is publicly humiliate them,” trustee Christina Martinez said.

Lecholop proposed that all trustees would receive the ethics policy annually and would have to sign it, signifying their understanding and securing an expectation of compliance. The committee debated what would be the best way to ensure employees also understood their expectations, but reached no final conclusion.

The ethics committee plans to meet at the end of September after reviewing the entire policy and make further revisions before bringing the proposal before the full board. Lecholop said he expects the board to make a final decision on the policy at the end of October.

Emily Donaldson reports on education for the San Antonio Report.